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Milestones and Progress

From the President's Desk

To: The Rensselaer Community
Re: Milestones and Progress

While the arrival of a new academic year always feels like a milestone, this year is particularly special for me. September 24 will mark the 20th anniversary of my inauguration as the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

Although the average tenure of a college president in the United States has declined to just six and a half years, I have remained here because I believe strongly in the capacity of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to educate, discover, innovate, and change the world. 

I must thank everyone in the Rensselaer family for making the last two decades so productive, and so enjoyable: our wonderful students, faculty, staff, administrative and academic leaders, trustees, alumni and alumnae, and friends. I am so grateful to all of you, for the support, for the enlightenment, and for the accomplishments.

Another milestone
Of course, I am not the only one recognizing a milestone this year. The United States currently is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

The effort during the 1960s to put humans on the moon is arguably the most audacious science and engineering project in history, and it is not surprising that Rensselaer people were at the fore. The 14th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, George M. Low ’48, was one of the architects of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When a cabin fire on the launching pad tragically killed the three astronauts of Apollo 1, Low was asked to take over the Apollo spacecraft program, and was responsible for the redesign and retesting that led to a successful moon landing. 

While he never became as famous as he deserved, and joked that his job was less exciting to the public than “what the astronauts ate for breakfast,” 50 years of hindsight have helped the world to see that a great deal of the credit for one of our most awe-inspiring accomplishments as a nation falls to George Low. 

I hope all of you will join us as we revisit this marvelous history and Rensselaer’s ongoing leadership in space exploration on Thursday, September 26, at a fireside chat with George Low’s son, Mr. Mark Low ’78, Managing Director of the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center and the NIH Center for Accelerated Innovations at the Cleveland Clinic, and Major General Charles Bolden Jr., the 12th Administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2017.

At Rensselaer, we take inspiration from the bold adventurers in our past in considering how to educate the bold adventurers of the future. 

Recognizing that digital data is an important new natural resource, we are implementing the first “data dexterity” requirement in the nation for all Rensselaer undergraduates, so that all of them will be able to use diverse data sets to make decisions within their chosen disciplines. And for those who want to go even further in employing this natural resource, we have created a new multidisciplinary Data Science and Engineering minor.

This summer (2019), our first full class of rising juniors remained on campus, under The Arch, for an extraordinary experience — academically and personally — that will allow them to spend an extended time away during and after the fall or spring semester of the junior year, and still graduate in the usual time frame. For some Arch students, the summer included a six-week course titled "AI-Assisted Immersive Chinese," which was the debut of a smart classroom created in our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory (CISL). The students learned Mandarin Chinese within an interactive, immersive environment (titled GILL: Gamified, Immersive Language Learning) that allowed them to use their newly acquired language skills as if they actually were navigating in China, while interacting with artificially intelligent characters, who helped them with the most difficult aspects of the Mandarin Chinese language, such as its tones.

Currently, we are launching a sweeping Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration (AIRC) in partnership with IBM that will advance the science of artificial intelligence, as well as its applications in research and education — in all five of our schools. Please stay tuned for an announcement from our Center for Computational Innovations (CCI) about the world-class data-centric, high-performance computing resources we will deploy to support our research and education. Together, the AIRC and the CCI will anchor a bold new initiative, and associated program, we will be launching — to be known as DAIC: Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Computation.

A Culture of Civility, Tolerance, and Inclusivity
In this run-up to the next United States presidential election, it is impossible not to conclude that polarization is increasing in our public life — indeed, that polarization is now openly used as a political tool.

In the community we have built together here at Rensselaer, we operate very differently. Our vision for ourselves as The New Polytechnic celebrates the multiplicity of perspectives we are able to gather at Rensselaer. We see our differences, which allow us to learn from one another, as a source of strength, as we seek to address great global challenges. 

These differences include differences of opinion. We must be civil and listen to one another, in order to get the benefit of each other’s ideas. Our recent review of Greek Life at Rensselaer is a prime example of how people who feel very passionately about their own points of view, nonetheless, can agree upon shared goals, and arrive at sensible solutions to complex challenges. 

I thank everyone who participated in this extended conversation about Greek Life at Rensselaer, which steered the development of excellent recommendations — currently being implemented — that will strengthen all of our Greek community. 

I am very proud of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a whole, for its culture of civility, tolerance, and inclusivity. As we work together to change the world, let us continue to show the world that respect is a powerful force.